A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method featured image

January 13, 2012
Reviewed by Marc Glassman

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg, director
Christopher Hampton, script based on his play The Talking Cure
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), Keira Knightley (Sabina Spielrein), Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung), Vincent Cassel (Otto Gross)

The buzz
David Cronenberg. Christopher Hampton. Viggo Mortensen. Keira Knightley. Sigmund Freud. Carl Jung. Michael Fassbender. Producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor, Crash, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence)

Is there buzz? Absolutely. But the shock waves are being generated by cinephiles and tastemakers, not the hoi polloi.

True, Viggo and Keira are big names and Fassbender is getting there but the romantic lives of the early gods of psychiatry—Freud and Jung—is hardly the stuff to get the post-hip hop, digi crowd twitching.

At TIFF and the Venice Film Festival, where A Dangerous Method had its Canadian and European premieres last fall, the media knocked itself out to get interviews with the stars and the director.

But now it’s time to see whether the buzz pays off.

The genres
Historical romance; a scientific discovery film; an intellectual ménage a trois; a cinematic adaptation of a “well-made” play

The plot
During the early part of the 20th century, Carl Jung, the brilliant young Swiss psychologist takes Sabina Spielrein, a Russian Jewish intellectual as his patient. Spielrein is an hysteric, who is suffering from—among other things—sexual frustration. Slowly Sabina turns Jung’s well-ordered world upside down. He begins to question his fidelity to his devoted wife, Emma and starts to wonder about his mentor Sigmund Freud’s domination of the field of psychology.

Inevitably, Spielrein and Jung have an affair, upsetting the Swiss doctor’s settled life. When Jung ends their relationship, Spielrein tries to enlist the aid of Freud and becomes his patient. Not simply because of Spielrein—there were other pedagogical reasons, Freud and Jung’s close friendship is broken up.

Years pass. Spielrein becomes a psychologist, specializing in children. Jung and Freud and Spielrein pursue their parallel paths as the realities of post—World War One Europe and the growth of modernism changes everything irrevocably.

The performances
This is a film dominated by four performances.

Michael Fassbender is a marvel of restraint and bewilderment as Jung—a huge contrast from his sexually obsessive character in Shame. He’s a big man and knows that he doesn’t have to over-act; simply being in a room makes him a presence. There’s no doubting the sincerity in his depiction of Jung but one wishes for a bit more: a wink, a smile, something, that would allow us into the mental pictures playing in the Swiss psychologist’s head.

Viggo Mortensen is surprisingly charming and earthy as Freud, a figure who is generally portrayed as an airless intellectual. It’s a fresh approach to the character but feels quite realistic; after all, it would require some measure of understanding of the flesh to construct the sexually dominant readings in Freud’s essays and lectures.

Vincent Cassel is a wonderful addition to the main cast. As the bizarre, sexually addicted and aptly named Otto Gross, he acts as a fluffer, further igniting the passions fueled by Spielrein.

Keira Knightley gives a brave performance as Sabina Spielrein. She literally projects the face of sexual suppression, jutting her jaw out, teeth clenched, as she struggles to maintain the façade of control in her demeanour. It’s unusual for a beauty to risk looking unattractive and Knightley does it here with commitment.

The direction
David Cronenberg is one of the preeminent directors in the world. He’s in a league with Almovodar, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Mike Leigh and a few others who can attract the best cast and crew to his films for a lower-than-normal budget.

There’s much to respect in Cronenberg’s direction in A Dangerous Method. He evokes the period precisely; everything—the language, the clothes, the settings—are attuned to an age long gone.

The problem is that Cronenberg has set himself the difficult task of animating a play called “The Talking Cure.” That’s what this film does—talk. The sexuality at the core of most Cronenberg films is buried and suppressed in this film—much like that of Jung and Spielrein.

Still, there’s much to be admired in Cronenberg’s expert direction. His brilliant technique will ensure that this film ages well.

The skinny
Cronenberg may have met his match in Christopher Hampton’s dialogue and tightly wound characters. This film never breaks through to the crazed heights of such films as A History of Violence, Crash and eXistenZ. Perhaps after all, Cronenberg needs a bit of pulp fiction in his plots to really get his mojo working.

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